It finally happened: Forest officials Thursday closed most of the forest north of Payson up to the Mogollon Rim due to extreme fire danger.
A large swath of land remains open for public recreation, however, including most campgrounds south of Highway 260, the Tonto Natural Bridge and parts of the Hellsgate and Mazatzal Wilderness.
However, the closure order also includes a big area south of town between Highways 87 and 188, including a portion of the southern shore of Roosevelt Lake. The closure order also includes all of Fossil Creek Canyon.
Officials say all but three campgrounds in the Tonto National Forest remain open. Those closed include Houston Mesa, Upper Tonto Creek and Oak Flat Campgrounds.
Forest Service officials say many factors affect whether they close an area, including the impact on the local economy.
The Forest Service imposed the closure order after determining that the failure of the spring rains had reduced the forest to tinder-box conditions. Despite widespread fire restrictions, visitors still leave untended campfires and discard cigarettes. With crews already strained by record fires in Colorado and New Mexico and several explosive fires in Arizona, the Forest Service hopes the closures will avoid a disaster until the monsoons set in to reduce the extreme fire danger Unfortunately, the onset of the monsoon season in July is often preceded by a series of dry thunderstorms, which bring the threat of lightning without the balm of rain.
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton said local tourism officials have prepared for the closure. He said the chamber’s new visitors guide includes an 11-stop tour of historical sites, all unaffected by the closures. Destinations include the Strawberry School House, Oxbow Saloon, Zane Grey Cabin and Shoofly Ruins.
“Maybe you can’t go out into the forest, but there is still something to do,” Stanton said.
The Forest Service has issued similar closure orders in years past. Many business owners held their breaths hoping the Forest Service would at least hold off until Memorial Weekend, one of the busier weekends of the summer.
In addition, on Thursday, the Coconino and Tonto National Forests expanded a closure order to include all of Fossil Creek also due to extreme fire conditions.
That means access to the scenic river is restricted from both the Strawberry and Camp Verde sides.
“Individuals recreating and camping within the closure will be asked to leave and no additional entrance will be allowed until fire danger lessens,” according to a press release.
Tonto National Forest spokesperson Paige Rockett said while much of the forest is now closed, the potential for fire remains high.
“My continued dialogue with Rim residents in particular reflects their belief that wildfires are caused by careless campers and that if we close the forest — or areas in the forest — that will considerably reduce wildfire danger.”
While unattended campfires are one cause of forest fires, sparks from motor vehicles and unlawful target shooting can also start fires.
“None of the attempts we make to restrict unlawful fire-causing behaviors is 100 percent effective,” she said. “For example, attempting to control fires caused by the traveling public is virtually impossible because we can’t restrict the use of roads.”
In addition, many people ignore closure orders, setting up camp and often using charcoal or wood grills.
Lt. Tim Scott, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies would cite anyone found in a closed area.
“The forest is extremely dry and we do not want to end up with another fire,” Scott said. “The Gila County Sheriff’s Office would like to ask all of the citizens of the county to not enter the closed areas.”
Fires are still prohibited in the Tonto National Forest and on private land within Gila County, which includes fireworks.
Officials look at recreation use when deciding how much of the forest to close. A huge concern is the ability to enforce a closure order, Rockett said.
“If we announce a closure we have to maintain a closure,” she said. “ We could not do this without partnering with other agencies.”
In addition, officials also look at the topographic features. If it would be difficult for get firefighters into an area should a fire start, that could also warrant a closure.
A fire below the Mogollon Rim would be very difficult to fight, Rockett said.
Historically, fires that occur in proximity to the Rim are subject to down slope winds in the evening, and strong upslope winds during the day. These factors, coupled with steep terrain, the urban interface and hot, dry Arizona summers make fire in the Rim Country even more hazardous, she said.
For more information on forest closures, visit www.fs.usda.gov/tonto.